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Jessica Deane Rosner

I have begun a project that addresses the crosscurrents between my need to make visual art and my awareness that my world view is shaped by reading (the instigator of empathy) and writing (a source of self-discovery). It has become increasingly critical for me to use words in my work in a meaningful and beautifully visual way. In this new piece I will engage not my own words but those of modernist master, James Joyce. Words once considered dirty; filthy; no better than household scum. 265,000 words so unclean that they were prosecuted for obscenity in the United States, and for 12 years after their first appearance in print, considered unfit for publication in the United Kingdom. I’m referring, of course, to the text of Joyce’s groundbreaking novel, Ulysses.

My father died in 2007; Ulysses was his favorite book. I remember that he kept numerous copies in our house when I was child, and when he could he went to the annual Bloomsday reading of the book, which takes 24 hours. A reverence for reading—Ulysses in particular—is one of my family legacies; cleanliness is another: work of keeping the house free of every kind of filth.

It’s from the intersection of these two legacies that my new piece derives. I am in the process of writing the entire text of Joyce’s Ulysses on pairs of workaday yellow rubber gloves—however many pairs it takes to copy the entire book. I expect it will use over 400 gloves in all, and will take me at least three years to complete. It may sound crazy, but I’ve not felt this passionate about my art for a long time; this is something I will do for myself, first and foremost. If others see and share in it, all the better.

For me, yellow rubber gloves suggest the simplicity and quietness of most people’s lives—especially women’s lives. As cleaning tools they come into contact with the filth we generate on a daily basis, and are designed to protect us from it, to keep our hands pristine, dirt and germ free. Rubber gloves are the objects that not only distance us from the byproducts of human existence, but help us (help working women) make those byproducts—the waste, dirt, dust, stains, stools, footprints— invisible. By contrast, Joyce’s Ulysses called the very same muck to the fore of literature, put it on display, and told us that this is it: this is who we are and what we make. This is life.

Writing the text of Ulysses by hand—by my hand, in my careful, calligraphic script—on the surface of hundreds of yellow rubber gloves is my way of asserting that we can never really make our filth disappear; like my ink it, too, is indelible. It’s also my way of questioning, like Joyce, whether the soot of our lives really is filth after all, or perhaps instead the raw material of art, and by extension, if the endless, unmeasured and unacknowledged work of women across decades, centuries, millennia is not, like modernist literature, a kind of performance art in itself.

Finally, this project allows me, as an artist who pieces together bits of found time in a crowded life for thinking, reading, writing, and making art, to create something epic. I am not James Joyce, but the act of writing on the gloves—a difficult and time-consuming undertaking—makes me feel close to him and his words as well as to my father. I speak aloud every word to myself as I write it: an act of near-total artistic and solitary absorption.


The Back Page: Ulysses and Rubber Gloves
Ott, Bill (author).
FEATURE. First published October 15, 2011 (Booklist).

I don’t get a lot of mail about the Back Page, aside from the occasional kind word or criticism, but last May I received a most unusual letter. It was in response to a column I’d written about my inability to finish reading Joyce’s Ulysses and my ongoing project to listen to the novel on audio. I filed the letter away, thinking I would refer to it in a follow-up column to be written when I finished listening to the audio. Well, that was four months ago, and I still haven’t finished the book (six CDs to go). Sadly, I fell into my usual trap, seduced away from serious literature by all variety of popular fare—including about five Laurie R. King novels read by the incomparable Jenny Sterlin.

But this column isn’t about my further adventures in listening to audiobooks. Rather, it’s about that unusual letter, which resurfaced the other day, thanks to my eccentric filing system—throw stuff into a pile on my desk and let individual items rise to the top on their own initiative. The letter, from Jessica Deane Rosner, a visual artist who works in a library in Cranston, Rhode Island, is about Ulysses and a very intriguing art project that uses Joyce’s novel as raw material. Like me, Rosner never managed to read Ulysses, at least in the conventional way, but her father, who died in 2007, loved the novel, and every June 14, he attended one of the Bloomsday readings held in Manhattan. At this point, let’s allow Rosner to tell her own story as she told it to me last May:

“Though most of my artwork is fairly conventional, at least in terms of media (pen, ink, gouache) and presentation (work that can be framed and put on a wall), I have been feeling pressed to create something out of the box. I suppose I know that the likelihood of ‘making it’ is pretty slim, especially at my age (past middle). Still, like many creative sorts of people, I keep thinking of the epic, never been done or seen before project that might just nudge me into the limelight. . . . Anyway, I kept thinking of my dad, his death, my death and life, and I kept looking around for something personal but Big, something I could do on my own, without a grant or a big space or much free time.

“And what I decided to do is to write all 783 pages of Ulysses onto yellow rubber kitchen gloves; the kind of gloves I use when I wash dishes or clean the tub. In writing it, I am, of course, reading it, though I don’t really understand it. We’ll see if this changes my life. I wish I could go to a Bloomsday reading with my dad and talk to him and find out why he loved this book so much. . . . As of today, I have finished 264 pages, and part of page 265. I’ve been doing this, about 1 1/2 pages a day, for around 14 months. I expect it to take over two years. My dad, who loved me, would think I’m nuts, but I think it would make him happy. It’s a lucky thing my mom didn’t die first. Her favorite writer is Proust.”

Now that is the most interesting letter I’ve ever received in my life. I assume everyone who reads these paragraphs is thinking what I thought when I first read the letter: Why rubber gloves? I found the answer in an article about Rosner’s project in Artscope, a culture magazine published in New England. Judith Tolnick Chompa writes that Rosner, a self-confessed neat freak, considers “a reverence for reading and cleanliness as dual legacies of her upbringing and values, and from the intersection of those two forces her ‘Gloves’ project derives.” Rosner also sees using rubber cleaning gloves as a writing surface as a way of commenting on the fact that Joyce’s novel was long considered obscene, or dirty. Writing with an indelible Sharpie pen, she makes the point that Joyce’s “filth” will never disappear, and perhaps filth is the raw material for art.

The philosophy behind the project is fascinating, but I’m much more intrigued by the work itself—and the dedication it must take to do it. I’ve never written anything on rubber gloves, but Rosner’s project reminds me of a very bad moment in my early childhood education. I struggled with penmanship throughout first grade, but it all went south with one assignment. Our charge was to copy a series of sentences on tablet paper, making sure that each sentence only covered one line. I failed miserably at this task, accumulating great mounds of crumpled paper around my desk, which earned me both the disgust of the teacher and the derision of my peers. Since then, my handwriting has become progressively messier, but I have remained in awe of the ability to write neatly in small spaces.

I know one thing: when Rosner’s project is finished and displayed in a gallery somewhere, I’ll be first in line to admire it. I only hope I will have finished listening to Ulysses by then.

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